However, these theologians did not specifically say when the body receives a soul. This is the process called “animation” or “ensoulment” by early philosophers. Many in the ancient world followed the thinking of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) on the issue. He believed that “ensoulment” occurred 40 days after conception in males and 90 days in females, and taught that abortion prior to this time was not murder.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), arguably the greatest theological mind after Paul, can be quoted on both sides of the issue. As regards whether souls are given to bodies at conception, Augustine said, “He…who formed them, knows whether He formed them with the soul, or gave the soul to them after they had been formed…I have no certain knowledge how it came into my body; for it was not I who gave it to myself.” He was critical of a theologian who was too dogmatic on this issue, claiming, “how much better it is for him to share my hesitation about the soul’s origin.” He did not believe that we can know when people “obtain their souls.”
And yet Augustine was convinced that those who die in the womb will be resurrected with the rest of humanity and given perfect bodies in heaven. If they died, they must have lived; if they lived, they will be resurrected. Babies deformed at birth will be given perfect bodies in paradise as well. It would seem that Augustine believed life to begin at conception, as the moment the fetus can die, it must have been alive.
Theologians, popes, and church councils in the centuries to follow would continue to debate this issue. St. Jerome (ca. 342-420) could speak of the “murder of an unborn child” (Letter 22:13), and yet he could state that abortion is not killing until the fetus acquires limbs and shape (Letter 121:4). Pope Innocent III (ca. 1161-1216) stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus when the woman feels the first movement of the fetus (the “quickening”). After such “ensoulment,” abortion is murder; previously it is a less serious sin, as it ends only potential human life.
Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) condemned abortion for any and all reasons. However, he agreed with Aristotle’s conclusion that a male child was formed enough to be judged human at 40 days, a female at 80. Only when the fetus could be considered human could it have a soul.
On the other hand, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) issued a decree in 1886 which prohibited all procedures which directly kill the fetus, even to save the life of the mother. He also required excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.
To summarize, Christian leaders across church history have been uniform in their condemnation of abortion once the fetus was considered to be a “person.” Many in the ancient and medieval world were influenced by Aristotle’s beliefs regarding the time when this occurred.
If they could know what we know about the fetus from its earliest stages of life, I believe they would revise their opinion and condemn abortion from the moment of conception. But it is impossible to know their position on information they did not possess.
What about rape and incest?
The Bible makes rape a capital offense:
If the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor (Deuteronomy. 22:25-26).
God’s word clearly condemns such a crime against women. “Pro-choice” advocates often point to this issue early in the debate, arguing that a woman should not continue to be victimized by bearing a child as the result of such a horrific crime.
Unprotected intercourse results in pregnancy about four percent of the time. If one in three women is likely to be raped in her lifetime, and incestuous relationships subject a woman to repeated sexual abuse, pregnancies resulting from rape and incest are so likely that abortion must be legal as a remedy for women subjected to such crime. Nearly all pro-life advocates concede the point, allowing for abortion in the case of rape and incest.
However, it has been established by numerous surveys over the years that rape and incest victims represent approximately one percent of the abortion cases recorded annually in this country. A decision to limit abortions to this exception would prevent the deaths of nearly all of the 1.5 million babies who are aborted each year. Only about three percent of the abortions performed each year in America relate to the health of the mother, and three percent relate to the health of the child. Ninety-three percent are elective.
To allow for abortion because of the very rare incidence of abortions performed because of rape and incest is something like suspending all marijuana laws because of the small number of patients who could benefit from its medicinal effects. We could stop the use of traffic lights because of the incidents when they slow a sick person’s rush to a hospital, but would we not cause more harm than we prevent?
At the same time, Americans must be conscious of the fact that rape and incest are far more common in some other countries and cultures. Rape in particular is a typical means of coercion and military control in some societies. There the percentage of abortions related to rape may be much higher than is the case in America.
This caveat stated, I’m not sure that even this decision is the moral choice. I must quickly admit that my status as an American, Anglo male makes it very difficult for me to commiserate with women who have experienced such trauma as rape and incest. But it is hard for me to understand how the child which is produced by this terrible crime does not deserve to live. Ethel Waters, the famous gospel singer, was the product of a rape. So was a student I taught at Southwestern Seminary, an evangelist with a global ministry today. I tread very lightly here, but would at the very least suggest that this issue is far from the primary cause of abortion in America today.